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The Henry James Review 21.3 (2000) 261-269

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Solid, Liquid, or Gas? Race as a State of Matter

James C. Davis, Montclair State University

Race has been ably treated in studies of Henry James, notably in this journal's 1995 special issue, but the materiality of race has not. In fact, it is the immateriality of race, at least in late James, that has been explored recently in books by Sara Blair and Patricia McKee, for example. The American Scene, occasioned by James's U.S. travels in 1904 and 1905, has attracted particular interest, perhaps because its concern with race is so explicit, perhaps because we expect a work of nonfiction to yield a more direct or accessible account of race than does a novel. The American Scene is important to the study of race at the turn of the century, not just because of its overt preoccupation with immigrants and non-whites, but also because of its elaborate ruminations on the material quality--indeed, the texture and viscosity--of race and on the peculiar status of whiteness. The historical moment of The American Scene marks an important transition in racial thinking in the United States. In uneasy alliance with competing discourses for representing race, both popular and disciplinary, James struggles to forge an alternate idiom and, in so doing, engages a range of figures for race's materiality. This essay suggests that the meaning of race, for James, is a question of its state of matter: Is race a solid, a liquid, or a gas? Does the answer vary depending on which race is at issue? What is at stake in such determinations?

At the time James wrote, the idea that one's race was solid--that race reduced to a color which "resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself," as Thomas Jefferson put it over a century earlier in "Notes on the State of Virginia" (264)--was, if not discredited, seriously challenged by the popularization of racial science. The notion that race was blood-borne prevailed, and the liquid "drop" of racialized blood was its unit of measure. In The American Scene race is rarely a solid, often a liquid, and sometimes a gas. This oscillation amongst figures reflects the contradictions that emerged as ethnicity-oriented approaches to race began to unsettle, but not fully displace, the biologist assumptions that had long anchored white supremacist [End Page 261] ideology. It also suggests the challenge race posed to one of James's primary aesthetic projects--to represent that which resolutely resists representation, that which is only called into existence through representation. Because it exists only in representation, yet seems no less real in its effects, race is at once a source of fascination and vexation for James. The American Scene stages his confrontation with the disquieting prospect that race may not exist.

Of course, these were not the exclusive preoccupations of James nor even of his patrician class; they emerged because, as John Higham argues, two strands of race-thinking coalesced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Racial science increasingly intermingled with racial nationalism. Under the pressure of a growing national consciousness, a number of European naturalists began to subdivide the European white man into biological types, often using linguistic similarity as evidence of hereditary connection. For their part, the nationalists slowly absorbed biological assumptions about the nature of race, until every national trait seemed wholly dependent on hereditary transmission. This interchange forms the intellectual background for the conversion of the vague Anglo-Saxon tradition into a sharp-cutting nativist weapon and, ultimately, into a completely racist philosophy. (134)

Without reducing James's work to either a record of or instrument for this conversion, we might situate his conflation of race and nation within the transformation Higham adumbrates. It is important to resist positing a teleological narrative in which James's approach looks like so much groundwork for later and more virulent forms of racial nativism. But in his performances of miscegenation...


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